These charges both were and were not well founded. Himself a rich man, it is not likely that Cameron profited personally by government contracts, even though the acrimonious Thad Stevens said of his appointment as Secretary that it would add "another million to his fortune." There seems little doubt, however, that Cameron showered lucrative contracts upon his political retainers. And no boss has ever held the State of Pennsylvania in a firmer grip. His tenure of the Secretaryship of War was one means to that end.
The restless alarm of the country at large expressed itself in such extravagant words as these which Senator Grimes wrote to Senator Fessenden: "We are going to destruction as fast as imbecility, corruption, and the wheels of time can carry us." So dissatisfied, indeed, was Congress with the conduct of the war that it appointed a committee of investigation. During December, 1861, and January, 1862, the committee was summoning generals before it, questioning them, listening to all manner of views, accomplishing nothing, but rendering more and more feverish an atmosphere already surcharged with anxiety. On the floors of Congress debate raged as to who was responsible for the military inaction--for the country's "unpreparedness," we should say today --and as to whether Cameron was honest. Eventually the House in a vote of censure condemned the Secretary of War.
Long before this happened, however, Lincoln had interfered and very characteristically removed the cause of trouble, while taking upon himself the responsibility for the situation, by nominating Cameron minister to Russia, and by praising him for his "ability, patriotism, and fidelity to the public trust." Though the President had not sufficient hold upon the House to prevent the vote of censure, his influence was strong in the Senate, and the new appointment of Cameron was promptly confirmed.
There was in Washington at this time that grim man who had served briefly as Attorney-General in the Cabinet of Buchanan--Edwin M. Stanton. He despised the President and expressed his opinion in such words as "the painful imbecility of Lincoln." The two had one personal recollection in common: long before, in a single case, at Cincinnati, the awkward Lincoln had been called in as associate counsel to serve the convenience of Stanton, who was already a lawyer of national repute. To his less-known associate Stanton showed a brutal rudeness that was characteristic. It would have been hard in 1861 to find another man more difficult to get on with. Headstrong, irascible, rude, he had a sharp tongue which he delighted in using; but he was known to be inflexibly honest, and was supposed to have great executive ability. He was also a friend of McClellan, and if anybody could rouse that tortoise-like general, Stanton might be supposed to be the man. He had been a valiant Democrat, and Democratic support was needed by the government. Lincoln astonished him with his appointment as Secretary of War in January, 1862. Stanton justified the President's choice, and under his strong if ruthless hand the War Department became sternly efficient. The whole story of Stanton's relations to his chief is packed, like the Arabian genius in the fisherman's vase, into one remark of Lincoln's. "Did Stanton tell you I was a fool?" said Lincoln on one occasion, in the odd, smiling way he had. "Then I expect I must be one, for he is almost always right, and generally says what he means."
In spite of his efficiency and personal force, Stanton was unable to move his friend McClellan, with whom he soon quarreled. Each now sought in his own way to control the President, though neither understood Lincoln's character. From McClellan, Lincoln endured much condescension of a kind perilously near impertinence. To Stanton, Lincoln's patience seemed a mystery; to McClellan--a vain man, full of himself--the President who would merely smile at this bullyragging on the part of one of his subordinates seemed indeed a spiritless creature. Meanwhile Lincoln, apparently devoid of sensibility, was seeking during the anxious months of 1862, in one case, merely how to keep his petulant Secretary in harness; in the other, how to quicken his tortoise of a general.
Stanton made at least one great blunder. Though he had been three months in office, and McClellan was still inactive, there were already several successes to the credit of the Union arms. The Monitor and Virginia (Merrimac) had fought their famous duel, and Grant had taken Fort Donelson. The latter success broke through the long gloom of the North and caused, as Holmes wrote, "a delirium of excitement." Stanton rashly concluded that he now had the game in his hands, and that a sufficient number of men had volunteered. This civilian Secretary of War, who had still much to learn of military matters, issued an order putting a stop to recruiting. Shortly afterwards great disaster befell the Union arms. McClellan, before Richmond, was checked in May. Early in July, his peninsula campaign ended disastrously in the terrible "Seven Days' Battle."
Anticipating McClellan's failure, Lincoln had already determined to call for more troops. On July 1st, he called upon the Governors of the States to provide him with 300,000 men to serve three years. But the volunteering enthusiasm--explain it as you will--had suffered a check. The psychological moment had passed. So slow was the response to the call of July 1st, that another appeal was made early in August, this time for 300,000 men to serve only nine months. But this also failed to rouse the country. A reinforcement of only 87,000 men was raised in response to this emergency call. The able lawyer in the War Department had still much to learn about men and nations.
After this check, terrible incidents of war came thick and fast --the defeat at Second Manassas, in late August; the horrible drawn battle of Antietam-Sharpsburg, in September; Fredericksburg, that carnival of slaughter, in December; the dearly bought victory of Murfreesboro, which opened 1863. There were other disastrous events at least as serious. Foreign affairs* were at their darkest. Within the political coalition supporting Lincoln, contention was the order of the day. There was general distrust of the President. Most alarming of all, that ebb of the wave of enthusiasm which began in midsummer, 1861, reached in the autumn of 1862 perhaps its lowest point. The measure of the reaction against Lincoln was given in the Congressional election, in which, though the Government still retained a working majority, the Democrats gained thirty-three seats.